Space and the right to self defence

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From Space X and Blue Origin race for reusable rockets, to China’s recent launch of an “orbital debris cleaner” satellite, space is definitely a trendy topic these days.

The prism that caught the attention of Rebeccah L. Heinrichs, a Study Director at the Washington-based Hudson Institute, is the potential of the space dimension for the US ballistic missile defence system (BMDS).

Her report released last month, titled Space and the Right to Self Defence, aims at finding options to cope with two threats to which the US are exposed, according to the author.

First the risk of seeing its BMDS becoming obsolete due to investment in missile technologies from “rogue” states (North Korea, Iran) and “near peer competitors” (Russia, China). According to an undisclosed report from the American National Air and Space Intelligence Centre (NASIC) cited by Rebeccah L. Heinrichs, 300 missiles launches and 60 foreign space launches took place in 2015. Like many recent reports and analysis, the author reminds us that over the past decade, several countries have greatly enhanced their missile programmes and missile technologies, thus challenging current counter measures.

For instance, North Korea tested under its “Space programme” technologies similar to the one characterizing ICBMs. But the greatest challenge, threat would likely say the author, comes from China and Russia. Both are developing Hypersonic Glide Vehicles (respectively dubbed the WU-14 and the YU-71). Such technology, once operational “would pose an unacceptable challenge to current area-defence interceptors” such as Patriot, Aegis and THAAD missile defence systems. In addition, China is actively developing anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBM).

Rebeccah Heinrichs insists on the fact that current missile defence systems fielded by Washington, such as the Ground Based mid-course ballistic missile defence, were developed to counter “basic” ICBMs, such as the one from Pyonyang and Tehran, but not advanced ones. As a result, steps must be taken in order to ensure the US advance in this field.

The second threat arising from the development of these technologies is the development of direct ascent anti-satellite weapons (ASAT). China and Russia developed and successfully tested missiles capable of shooting down satellites. Russia’s Nudal ASAT weapon test happened, according to media sources, in May 2015. Beijing widely covered tests took place in 2007. The report emphasis on the fact that US is heavily relying on a fleet of more than 100 satellites to perform its duties. Such assets being currently particularly vulnerable to direct ascent ASAT weapons, with no “active” countermeasures.

In order to remediate to this situation, the author suggests making a giant leap in the field of space militarization by fielding Space Based Interceptors (SBIs). According to her, such systems will grant the US the capability to intercept, using a “hit to kill” technology, ballistic missiles in their boost phases thus destroying it before the deployment of warheads and decoys. It could also be used to protect aircraft carriers from anti-ship ballistic missiles.

In this regard, the SBI would become a new layer of the US BMDS. The other benefit of this option is that it could also be used to intercept direct ascent ASAT weapons and enhance the American satellite fleet space situational awareness (SSA).

Regarding the feasibility of such systems, the author seems quite optimistic. First, it is mentioned that current technologies would allow fielding SBIs in the short term, relatively. This assumption is based on a 2011 report of the Institute for Defence Analysis, advancing the idea of a constellation of around 24 satellites with kinetic interceptors for a price tag of “$26-30bn over its operational lifetime.” According to the Hudson Institute, SBIs will not constitute a violation of the UN Outer Space Treaty of 1967 since kinetic interceptors are neither nuclear weapons nor weapons of massive destructions.



Written by ADIT – The Bulletin and republished with permission.